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Tuesday
Apr102018

Doc Corner: Mariska Hargitay and the Heroes of 'I Am Evidence'

**Before getting into this week's review, I wanted to mention that this column recently won an Australian Film Critics Association Award! My review of Laura Poitras' Risk was awarded the Award for Best Review of an Individual Non-Australian Film from a panel of judges and I couldn't be more chuffed. This column is a labor of love because I love watching and writing about documentaries so I was so happy to see some love of its own thrown back. Thank you to Nathaniel for having it here and to all the readers who follow along.**

By Glenn Dunks

The cult of Law & Order: Special Victim’s Unit is a peculiar one. For nineteen (19!!) seasons, we tune in to new instalments, binge old episodes while sick and in need of comfort television or catch the climax of an episode we've somehow seen several times before. "Oh, I love this one. It's about the talk show host who was attacked by her co-host who turns out to be a serial sex pest!" Gosh. How a show about the police investigating sex crimes became “comfort television” is something I, a fan of the series, don’t quite know the full answer to, although I suspect it involves something similar to how audiences often turn to horror movies as a dramatic vent.

Audiences get the rollercoaster of emotions that a show with such a premise offers and the rapists and the abusers always get caught and brought to swift justice in span of just 60 minutes before we move on to washing the dishes or walking the dog or going to bed. Perhaps it is because the crimes that are committed on a show such as SVU are ones that feel more tangible to us – I would imagine more people know somebody who has been sexually assaulted than has been murdered by drug cartels – that we relish the opportunity to at least feel the sensation of watching people who care about the victims of these crimes and do everything that they can to bring to perpetrators or justice. Perhaps.

The brisk pacing of SVU, of course, belies the realities of policing sexual assault. There are sadly probably more convictions on your average season of the Mariska Hargitay NBC series than in the entire cities featured in the new HBO doc I Am Evidence. In fact, we're told at the start of this doc that someone is sexually assaulted every two minutes in the United States, which is just about as horrifying a statistic as one can read. First-time director Trish Adlesic, an Oscar-nominated producer of GasLand and location manager for 310 episodes of SVU, is joined by Geeta Gandbhir, a multiple Emmy-winning editor of When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts and director of A Journey of a Thousand Miles: Peacekeepers, and the pair dive into the shameful neglect of rape kit testing by the police forces of several major cities. Sticking mostly to Detroit (where Hargitay, a producer on the doc, stands alongside local hero Kym Worthy in launching an initiative to test a recently discovered backlog of 11,000 rape kits), Cleveland and Los Angeles, I Am Evidence follows several specific cases in closer detail while also attempting to juggle the enormous subject matter more broadly.

As a documentary, Adlesic and Gandbhir’s film works better when focusing on the individuals and their cases. The stories we hear are indeed tragic and sad and obviously hold more weight than your typical episode of Law & Order. Similar to Dawn Porter’s Trapped (the first film covered in this column two years ago), a lot of I Am Evidence’s power comes from allowing the camera to linger on its subjects and allows their story to be told as they choose. It’s deeply moving and not sensationalized and the power of these scenes is only enhanced by the locations, which are not often areas we see in stories such as this.

Where I Am Evidence is less successful is when it attempts to grapple the larger issue. It’s simply too much for a single 85-minute film to cover and subsequently segments come off as rushed. Important topics are raised, but glanced over out of necessity of the runtime. More time is spent by talking heads debating whether a case study is accurate or not than is spent delving into the systemic misogyny of the male-dominant police forces or confronting those in power for reasons beyond “too expensive”. Meanwhile, one female officer who is interviewed doesn’t appear to have been probed about the issue beyond the immediate case that she is discussing, despite obviously having a more personal response to it.

It’s not enough to derail the film by any means, but in their effort to shine a light on the criminal neglect of sex crime investigations, Adlesic and Gandbhir aren’t entirely able to reconcile the overwhelming power of the stories with the need for an over-arching narrative. Which, I guess, is something that Law & Order: Special Victim’s Unit does really well and why it has lasted nearly two decades (and counting). Even if it is highly glamorized, it offers a hope that people care and that change is possible. There is a shining light of hope through I Am Evidence too, however, and hopefully this film means more of that for the future.

Release: I Am Evidence will air on HBO on April 16th.

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Reader Comments (5)

congratulations again! That's so cool. And I've always been curious about your fascination with L&O:SVU so it's nice to have that explained even though I still dont get the show. I literally can't sit through those shows!

April 10, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Congratulations !

April 10, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterPedro

Congrats!

April 10, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

Law & Order: SVU has characterized itself for the quality of its guest stars. There was a time when every year, SVU guest stars monopolized the Best Guest Actor and Actress categories at the Emmys. Actors like Carol Burnett, Angela Lansbury, Robin Williams, Ellen Burstyn, Ann Margret, Leslie Caron and Martha Plimpton among many other. A recent awards show (I don't remember which) showed a clip where all the actors nominated in one category (or more than one) had guested in one of the shows of the L&O franchise. That was fun

April 10, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterMarcos

Congratulations!
A well-deserved award for a beautiful and thoughtful piece of writing.

April 11, 2018 | Unregistered Commenteradri

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